First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected legal fight in Tennessee, where a 7-month-old boy had his name changed by a state judge who disapproved of his parents’ choice in monikers.
Last week, when a Tennessee judge forcibly changed an infant’s name from Messiah to Martin, it was hard to decide which was more noteworthy, the parents’ grandiosity in naming their child for the one they consider their Savior or the judge’s religious zealotry in prohibiting the name.
“The word ‘Messiah’ is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ,” said Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew.
It seems pretty obvious that the Tennessee judge went too far. State restrictions on parental naming rights exist, but general apply to practical considerations: names can’t be so long that they no longer fit on a birth certificate, and some states prohibit non-letter characters – exclamation points, ampersands, etc. – from being included.
But for a state court to reject a name because the judge considers it religiously inappropriate seems pretty outrageous. Indeed, according to the Social Security Administration database, there were 762 American baby boys named “Messiah” last year – making it roughly as popular as the name “Scott.” There were also were 3,758 Americans given the name “Jesus,” which appears to be more common in families of Hispanic ancestry.
While we wait for Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew’s ruling to be overturned, however, the New York Times report on this story included an interesting twist: what happens when parents use their naming rights as a form of proselytizing?
Last year a New York judge refused to allow a couple to change their family name to ChristIsKing. The judge argued that allowing certain names could infringe on the religious liberties of others, and he offered the example of a court employee forced to call out a name with a religious message.
“A calendar call in the courthouse would require the clerk to shout out, ‘JesusIsLord ChristIsKing’ or ‘Rejoice ChristIsKing,’ ” wrote Judge Philip S. Straniere, of Richmond County. He was alluding to the daughter’s first name, Rejoice, and a name they had sought for their son, although no court would allow them to change it to “JesusIsLord.”
The NYT’s Mark Oppenheimer added that the New York ruling “is not binding in Tennessee, but it reminds us that whenever religious language is involved, whether etched into public buildings or slapped onto a Social Security card, there are competing claims of religious freedom.”
Also from the God Machine this week:
* Oklahoma’s pointless efforts to ban Sharia law in state courts isn’t going well: “A proposed amendment to Oklahoma’s state constitution that would have prevented state courts from considering Sharia and international law was struck down by a federal judge on Thursday.”
* Bad advice on church politicking: “Even as polls show Americans broadly oppose electioneering from the pulpit, a new report by a group of faith leaders working closely with Capitol Hill argues for ending the decades-old ban on explicit clergy endorsements. The report being given Wednesday to Sen. Charles E. Grassley – the Iowa Republican whose office for years has been probing potential abuses by tax-exempt groups – comes as the ban has become a culture-war flashpoint.”
* The Gastonguay family made a very bad decision: “A northern Arizona family that was lost at sea for weeks in an ill-fated attempt to leave the U.S. over what they consider government interference in religion will fly back home Sunday.”
* And Darek Isaacs, a creationist author and filmmaker, insisted this week that dragons actually existed and interacted with people. And what makes him think this? Because, Issacs argued, there are Biblical references to dragons, which necessarily means dragons were real.